Mapping Identity

September 7, 2010

After finishing Questions of Travel and considering it alongside our previous Bishop readings and critical essays, it seems to me that there exists a common theme of identity formation in terms of geography (spatial relationships, domain and borderline areas) in all of these works. Looking first at the critical essays, if we think of poetry in terms of a physical space, many of the essays discuss and evoke the following questions: To whom does this space belong? To whom is it accessible? Should the rights lie exclusively with an educated elite few or a universal population/private versus public space? Can art and “politics” reside together in this space or do they require separate domains? The boundaries and delineations of this space seem to be in a constant state of flux and poetry, itself, at different periods in time and geographic locations has reflected upon its identity.  The Modernist Period in particular was characterized by a sense of self-consciousness or self-doubt.  A lack of or changing identity resulted in a body of work that was defined by this crisis, in turn, giving it an identity and a place.

                If we look next at Bishop’s collection Questions of Travel, the reader is asked to consider identity in terms of geography immediately with “Arrival at Santos.” In this poem, as with many others in the collection, Bishop takes the reader to a borderline location to discuss the running themes of: boundaries, inclusion v. exclusion, “here” and “there,” “us” and “them,” expectation and reality, truth and fantasy/delusion/denial, shelter/safety and exposure/danger, innocence/naivety and knowledge.   At these borderlines she is able to create a tension that reflects a struggle with sense of self, “homelessness” (or belonging) and/or  the dynamics of power that define human relationships.  Often, identity is defined in terms of who/what you are not which may only complicate, rather than aid, founding a solid sense of who/what you are.  “Other-ing” is a common tool in nation-building and identity formation and sometimes serves as a justification for unbalanced power dynamics between groups that become engrained in their sense of identity.  Bishop addresses this as well when she obscures or challenges the lines/territories differentiating a person/group from another in some of her poems in this collection.  Another recurring spatial representation is structural: that of “the home” or house.  Who or what can live in this space delegated to comfort, security and safety and how are they (or not) impervious to “dangers” of the natural or outside world? In short, these physical spaces, their occupants, and the interactions at the frontline represent complications in the human need for classification and delineation to provide order in their world.

                All of this being said, I think “The Map” was a great way to begin looking at these discussions.  I’d like to offer a reading that considers Bishop’s concept of interaction at the borderline and human demarcation of the world in this poem as commentary on poetry or meta-poetic in nature.  If we consider the art of mapping as something to help us in placing our “YOU ARE HERE” sticker, it can be argued that poetry attempts to do the same as a guide to understanding and ordering the world around you in some way.  However, the first line of Bishop’s poem reads, “Land lies in water; it is shadowed green” which calls to mind the end of Brooker’s essay where he paraphrases Emmanual Levinas when arguing, “…art is not reality, but its shadow…” followed by, “Art…works by substituting an image of reality for reality itself,”(72).   Taking “lies” in Bishop’s poem to have double meaning, she is telling the reader that art cannot “be true” but only represent truths just as the land on a map is only a depiction of the land it represents. She follows this by going to the edge, the border between water and land.  With tension evoking words like “hang,” “lean,” “lift,” and “tugging” she describes the interaction of these elements at their meeting place.  Perhaps here Bishop is contemplating the ability of art to attain what it is seeking: what is true.  Can it be held without it being “perturbed” or disturbed? Or it is grasping, unable to hold it firmly as “the fine tan sandy shelf” is an unstable ground?

If the first stanza discusses a map in terms of itself, contained, then the second stanza discusses the map in terms of utility as the world interacts with it, violating its isolation.  The piece of art, lifeless in its representation has been stained by a history of use.  As the narrator interacts with the map, art meets its audience and through this lens (“under a glass”) becomes an entity with the possibility of sustaining life, “expected to blossom” or “provide a clean cage for invisible fish.”  Mentioning the printer next, she notes the marks of an artist/creator within his work as he stamps himself on it and into it, making himself known and disturbing a separation of the two. Perhaps this is an image to show that intent and intrinsic value can or inevitably exist within the same space of art.

 To summarize my interpretation of the rest of the poem, Bishop restores balance in this contained space (the map) by finally explaining the relationship between land and water as a representation “feeling” for the unattainable while the unattainable/unrepresentable “lend(s)” itself to the representation.  This image lacks the tension seen in their relationship in the first stanza.  She continues by saying that although this might “agitat(e)” elements existing within representation, or the art, it leads to a further “investagat(ion)” of the unrepresentable or what is unattainable.  Art may be upset/challenged by the reality it attempts to recreate, but it also allows, in turn, for a deeper examination of the reality, creating balance.  Finally, she could be concluding that balanced mapping and, by extension creation and art, is not indulgent and “displays no favorites”, but is “delicate” and careful in its representation which makes it not untrue.

If I’ve made a strong enough argument, I think it is fair to say that “The Map” encapsulates an interpretation of identity formation, as discussed in the critical essays on audience and the artist/poet and the purpose of art (externally and internally) as well as other works by Bishop, in terms geography and spatial relationships and interaction.

**I also have forgotten to mention our mapping of the critics, themselves.  Placing them in relation to one another also helped us to define them individually. 

                (Lastly, I don’t mean for this to be what I think is a comprehensive list of Bishop’s themes in total.  The aspect of time, elements of form and many other important things I probably haven’t even realized yet add depth to the Questions of Travel collection and should be discussed; I just thought it might be interesting to consider the combination of this selection of poetry and critical discourse about poetry in terms of space.  Thoughts?)

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